South Africa - Escarpment and Kruger National Park - 8th - 16th February 2014

Published by Lawson's Birding (leon AT

Participants: Leon Marais and John Davies as guides, Paul, Liz, Woody, Margaret, Henry, Suzanne.


Photos with this report (click to enlarge)

Southern Carmine Bee-eater
Southern Carmine Bee-eater
Pink-throated Twinspot
Pink-throated Twinspot
Southern Red Bishop
Southern Red Bishop
African Goshawk
African Goshawk

Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris
P O Box 16849
West Acres, Nelspruit
Mpumalanga, South Africa 1211
Tel : +27 13 741 2458
Email :
Web :

Temperature Range: 15 - 33°C.
Total Birds Seen: 305.
Total Mammals Seen: 41.

Birds of the Trip: Red-necked Spurfowl, Saddle-billed Stork, Montague’s Harrier, Greater Kestrel, Denham’s Bustard, Kori Bustard, African Finfoot, Grey Crowned Crane, Knysna Turaco, Retz’s Helmet Shrike, Bokmakierie, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Icterine Warbler, Drakensberg Prinia, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Long-tailed Widowbird, Swee Waxbill and Pink-throated Twinspot, to mention a few.

Note: The species mentioned in the report are only some of the species seen at each locality. Please refer to detailed checklists at end of the report for all species seen on this specific tour.

Trip Breakdown

Day 1: Saturday 8th February 2014 ~ Dullstroom

The day started with a group breakfast at Outlook Lodge, where most members of the tour stayed at the end of the previous Best of KwaZulu-Natal tour. With breakfast done and our bags packed we left Johannesburg and drove northwards to Rietvlei Nature Reserve, a 3 870 hectare reserve which protects a portion of Highveld Grassland, a habitat type which is becoming increasingly rare due to rampant urbanization, agriculture and mining. We arrived mid-morning and began our birding at the entrance gate, where we recorded Grey Go-Away Bird, Red-faced Mousebird, Crested Barbet, Greater Striped Swallow, Great Reed Warbler, Cape White-eye and others to start things off. Inside the reserve we made our way slowly to Marais Dam for a tea /coffee stop, spotting species such as Rufous-naped Lark, Spotted Thick-knee, Long-tailed Widowbird, Banded Martin, European Bee-eater, African Hoopoe, Bokmakierie, Southern Fiscal, Pied Starling, Ant-eating Chat, Fiscal Flycatcher, African Wattled Lapwing, Cape Sparrow, Black-chested Prinia and many others on the way there and back to the gate. Many of the birds we saw were rather photogenic, obviously used to seeing vehicles driving by and the photographers among us were kept very busy indeed. We also saw numerous mammal species, such as White Rhino (two de-horned individuals, the horns removed to deter poachers), Burchell’s Zebra, Red Hartebeest, Black Wildebeest, Blesbok, Springbok and Yellow Mongoose. With the day drawing on we left Rietvlei and made our way onto the highway, with a brief lunch stop before continuing on to the highland town of Dullstroom. After arriving and settling in we took a drive to the municipal dams, where we took a short walk, seeing species such as the common but splendid male Malachite Sunbird, White-throated Swallow, African Yellow Warbler and Levaillant’s Cisticola. With the sun sinking low to the west we made our way back to the inn for some time to freshen up before a fantastic dinner at Mrs. Simpson’s, a uniquely themed restaurant serving some very good food and drink. After the meal we gathered in the lounge at the inn for the daily species list before calling it a night.

Route: Johannesburg to Dullstroom.
Weather: warm and partly cloudy.
Birds seen: 81.
Bird of the day: Malachite Sunbird.

Day 2: Sunday 9th February 2014 ~ Dullstroom.

On a typically misty highlands morning we met up at 05h30 for an excursion into the Veloren Valei (Lost Valley) Nature Reserve, which encompasses a short grass plateau and numerous marshes situated in the Steenkampsberg at around 2200 meters above sea level. And as is also often the case, the thick mist began to lift as we made our way up the dirt road into the Steenkampsberg Range. By the time we reached the top the morning sun was making itself shown, and we had a coffee stop overlooking the empty plateau. Birds seen for the morning included Secretarybird, Long-crested Eagle, Jackal Buzzard, Denham’s Bustard, African Wattled Lapwing, Bokmakierie, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Wailing and Wing-snapping Cisticolas, Buff-streaked Chat, Mountain Wheatear, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Yellow Bishop, Cape Longclaw and Yellow-breasted Pipit, while mammals seen included a very unusual record in the form of a trio of Bushpigs, a species normally only active after dark (especially in agricultural areas where they are often shot by farmers for crop damage), Blesbok and Oribi (the latter two are both species of antelope). Wild flowers were also pretty spectacular, and included stands of Zigzag Crocosmia (Crocosmia paniculata) as well as the spectacular Common Candelabra flowers (Brunsvigia natalansis). After the coffee stop we pushed on a bit before turning around and slowly making our way back down to town for breakfast, arriving just before the cut-off time of 10h00 for a well-deserved hot ‘English’. We then had some time to stroll around the town (under an unusual sun halo caused by ice crystals in the upper troposphere refracting the light) and to rest a bit before a long afternoon excursion via the hamlet of Tonteldoos, a quaint settlement in the slightly drier country west of Dullstroom. Birds seen included White Stork, Brown Snake-Eagle, Greater Kestrel, Amur Falcon, Grey Crowned Crane, European Bee-eater, Cape Grassbird, Drakensberg Prinia, Red-collared Widowbird, Cape Canary and others. With a final push back down through the Veloren Valei Reserve we arrived back in town in the early evening for another great dinner, this time at The Mayfly, before our daily species list and bed.

Route: Routes in the Dullstroom region.
Weather: misty to start, clearing to become partly cloudy and mild.
Birds seen: 83.
Bird of the day: Greater Kestrel.

Day 3: Monday, 10th February 2014 ~ The Blyde River Canyon

With an early departure from Dullstroom we made our way on to our morning’s birding spot at Mount Sheba, on old-style hotel situated on the slopes of the escarpment where rising air from the hot savannah to the east often creates wet and misty conditions. The journey took around two hours, and we arrived with perfect timing just as the mist was beginning to lift. On the way down to the hotel we spotted a quartet of Denham’s Bustards, Red-necked Spurfowl, Southern Tchagra and Narina Trogon as notable species. After arriving at the hotel we did some birding on foot, though the forest was a little quiet and we only managed to see a few species such as Cape Batis, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler and Bar-throated Apalis. Forest birding in South Africa can be notoriously variable, especially in the more temperate forests such as that surrounding Mount Sheba. The birds often move around in groups, so one can go a while without seeing much and then suddenly come across a bird party comprising several different species and a good measure is to come away with 5 to 6 ‘forest specials’ for the morning. We thus decided to have breakfast and then try another part of the forest, which proved to be more productive. We had cracking views of Yellow-streaked Greenbul, as well as Knysna Turaco, Olive Woodpecker, Olive Bushshrike, Grey Cuckooshrike and Chorister Robin-Chat to make for a decent haul of forest species, while non-forest species included Eurasian Hobby, Red-winged Starling and Rock Martin. Moving on, we took the scenic Vaalhoek Road to the Blyde River Canyon, where we enjoyed the views from the Three Rondavels View Site, and after checking in to our rooms we had some time to rest before a trip to the resort’s private Upper Viewpoint for ‘sundowners’ and a raptor watch on one of the nicest afternoons weather-wise that one can imagine. With the sun setting we made our way back to the resort for time to freshen up before dinner and the daily list.

Route: Dullstroom to the Blyde River Canyon.
Weather: partly cloudy and mild.
Birds seen: 82.
Bird of the day: Yellow-streaked Greenbul.

Day 4: Tuesday, 11th February 2014 ~ Satara Rest Camp

Our day started with a cup of coffee before a very pleasant walk down through the resort grounds and along the Tufa Trail, which follows the Tufa-rich Kadisi Stream, a tributary of the Blyde River which holds an incredible number of Tufa falls and cascades (Tufa is a rock type formed by calcium carbonate deposits and only occurs under a certain set of conditions). Birds seen included Black-collared Barbet, Black Cuckooshrike, Southern Black Tit, Sombre Greenbul, Lesser Striped Swallow, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Familiar Chat, Mocking Cliff-Chat, White-bellied Sunbird, Swee Waxbill and Yellow-fronted Canary. With a wonderful walk under the belts we hit the breakfast buffet with a vengeance before packing and making our way to Orpen Gate and the mighty Kruger National Park, 20 000 km² of critter-packed wilderness that would be our home for the next 5 nights. We spent some time stretching the legs at Orpen Gate before tackling to 50-odd kilometers to Satara Rest Camp in the south-central region of the park, a journey that is known to take up to six hours! We saw numerous new bird species, such as Southern Red-billed, Southern Yellow-billed and African grey Hornbills, Lilac-breasted and European Rollers, Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Bateleur, Wahlberg’s and Tawny Eagles, Red-crested Korhaan, Woodland Kingfisher, Magpie, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Rufous-naped and Flappet Larks, Red-breasted Swallow, Rattling Cisticola, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Wattled, Greater Blue-eared and Burchell’s Starlings, Natal and Swainson’s Spufowls, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting and many others. Mammals seen included African Elephant, Smith’s Bush Squirrel, Common Warthog, Hippopotamus, Southern Giraffe, Black-backed Jackal, Impala, Blue Wildebeest, African Buffalo, Bushbuck, Greater Kudu and Common Waterbuck as an introduction to the park’s wonderful array of species. The last hour of the drive was characterized by fantastic late afternoon light, and with plenty of Southern Carmine Bee-eaters, European and Lilac-breasted Rollers and other species perched close to the road, the photographers had a busy time indeed! We eventually arrived in camp in the very late afternoon and had time to buy some drinks from the shop before checking in and then meeting up for an outdoor barbeque dinner, during which we saw an African Scops Owl calling from the trees behind the chalets. After the meal we completed our lists and called it a night in anticipation of a great day to come.

Route: Blyde River Canyon to Satara Rest Camp.
Weather: partly cloudy and hot.
Birds seen: 107.
Bird of the day: African Scops Owl.

Day 5: Wednesday, 12th February 2014 ~ Satara Rest Camp

With alarms going off a little earlier than usual we met up at 05h15 to make the most of the morning before the heat set in. After the customary rusks and coffee we made our way northwards out of camp and then turned north-east on the S90, a gravel road that cuts through the open grassland of the Mavumbye Creek area, a part of the park usually dry and harsh but resplendent under the current summer conditions. Birds seen included Helmeted Guineafowl, Harlequin Quail, Black Stork, White-headed and Lappet-faced Vultures, Martial Eagle, Steppe Eagle (large numbers of Steppe and Lesser Spotted Eagles seen cruising southwards at high altitude), Lesser Kestrel, Amur Falcon, Senegal Lapwing, Namaqua Dove, Brown-headed Parrot, Burchell’s Coucal, Purple Roller, Sabota Lark, Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark, Red-billed Quealea, Blue Waxbill, Buffy Pipit and many others. We arrived back at camp for a customary fry-up ‘brunch’, and then had a brief walk in the camp grounds to find one of the resident African Scops Owls before taking a mid-day break through the heat of the day. In the afternoon we headed northwards up the H1-4 tar road, a good route choice which produced numerous highlights, including a pair of male Cheetahs, a ‘flock’ of over twenty Common Ostriches doing a ballet-like display, numerous Montague’s Harriers, Great Spotted Cuckoo, a pair of Kori Bustards, a couple of baby Puff Adders crossing the road, and a very poor view of two male Lions lying under some thick bushes. On a superb late afternoon we made our way back to camp for a steak braai (the local term for a barbeque) and the end of a wonderful full day in the Kruger National Park.

Route: various routes in the Satara region.
Weather: partly cloudy and hot.
Birds seen: 92.
Bird of the day: Montague’s Harrier.

Day 6: Thursday, 13th February 2014 ~ Skukuza Rest Camp

Our last morning at Satara began early as usual, with a hint of moisture in the air heralding the arrival of some rain. Our route took us along the S100, which skirts the Nwanetsi Creek, and we experienced passing showers on and off during the morning. Despite the rain we had a good drive, seeing birds such as Emerald Spotted Wood Dove, African Green Pigeon, Common Scimitarbill, Wire-tailed and Mosque Swallows, Icterine Warbler, Red-faced Cisticola, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Marico Sunbird and Yellow-throated Longclaw, among others. We then made our way back to camp where we had breakfast and then departed for Skukuza Rest Camp, some 92 kilometers to the south along the Sabie River. The journey took up most of the day, with plenty of birds and animals seen along the way. New species of birds seen on the journey included White-faced Whistling Duck, Knob-billed Duck, Yellow-billed Stork, Woolly-necked Stork, Gabar Goshawk (raiding weaver nests), Black Crake, Water Thick-knee, African Jacana, Wood Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Ruff, Jacobin Cuckoo, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Cardinal Woodpecker, White-crested Helmetshrike, Eurasian Golden Oriole (a flock of around 15 birds seen at one point), Violet-backed Starling, Southern Black Flycatcher, Ashy Flycatcher, Red-headed Weaver and Golden-breasted Bunting, among others. Mammals seen included Mauritian Tomb Bat, Slender Mongoose and the usual assortment of pachyderms and ungulates. We arrived in camp in the late afternoon and had some time to stroll around and / or rest before dinner in the camp’s restaurant.

Route: Satara to Skukuza.
Weather: mild with intermittent rain and sun.
Birds seen: 121.
Bird of the day: Bennett’s Woodpecker.

Day 7: Friday, 14th February 2014 ~ Skukuza Rest Camp

To start our full day in the Skukuza region we met up for coffee, of course, before departing on a morning drive along the Sabie River. The excitement came early with a pack of eight Wild Dogs running in the road, and we followed them for a while before continuing with the journey. The further east we ventured however, the worse the weather got, and during a protracted shower we decided to turn around and rather head in a westerly direction, which was towards both lighter skies and breakfast at the golf club. We arrived at 08h00 for a big ‘English’ enjoyed while watching birds over the 9th / 18th hole, and afterwards took a drive to the Lake Panic bird hide, where the morning got really exciting with the discovery of a Pink-throated Twinspot, a major record for the southern part of the park, as well as numerous birds around the water and two juvenile African Goshawks with kills – one an unidentified bird and the other a Smith’s Bush Squirrel. After the excitement of the hide we headed back for a rest and in the afternoon took another pleasant drive down the river and back via Marula Loop. Once again we had a good dinner in the camp’s restaurant and did our lists before calling it a night in anticipation of our last full day of the tour. Other species seen for the day included Marabou Stork, Hamerkop, Hooded Vulture, Black-chested Snake Eagle, African Hawk Eagle, African Fish Eagle, Purple-crested Turaco, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Giant Kingfisher, White-fronted Bee-eater, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Southern White-crowned Shrike, White-throated Robin Chat, White-browed Robin Chat and Bearded Scrub Robin.

Route: various routes in the Skukuza region.
Weather: mild with intermittent rain and sun.
Birds seen: 102.
Bird of the day: Bearded Scrub Robin.

Day 8: Saturday, 15th February 2014 ~ Pretoriuskop Rest Camp

An exciting morning began with the usual coffee, tea and rusks before heading off at 05h30 on a drive via the Col. James Stevenson Hamilton memorial and Renosterkoppies (Rhino Hills). While the birds were prolific as usual (Hornbills, Rollers, Bee-eaters, Raptors etc), the stars of the morning included a pride of tens Lion lying on a large rock and, towards the end of the drive, a female Leopard resting on a branch in a large Marula tree, giving us a full house of large predators for the trip (Lion, Leopard, Cheetah, Wild Dog and Spotted Hyena). With everyone on a high from the exciting drive we meandered back to camp for breakfast on the deck overlooking the Sabie River. After breakfast we had a tactical decision to make, as Margaret was in need of medical attention, so we split into two groups, with John and Margaret heading on to the hospital in Nelspruit and the rest of the group continuing as planned with Leon. Our route took us to the Matekenyane View Point and then on via Transport Dam and Xitlava Dam to Pretoriuskop Rest Camp, and we arrived at around 14h00 for a well-deserved rest period. We then took a drive around Shabeni Outcrop and along the Fayi Loop before heading back into camp in the late afternoon. By this time John had returned from Nelspruit (sans Margaret, who was admitted for two nights) and had the fire going, and a bit later on we met for a drink and the bird list before a final dinner. Birds seen for the day included Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Jameson’s Firefinch, Mocking Cliff Chat, Croaking Cisticola, Retz’s Helmet Shrike, Little Bee-eater, Green Wood Hoopoe, Black-collared Barbet and African Palm Swift, among others.

Route: Skukuza to Maguga Dam.
Weather: hot and windy.
Birds seen: 73.
Bird of the day: Retz’s Helmet Shrike.

Day 9: Sunday, 16th February 2014 ~ Departure

After having spent a lot of time in the vehicles over the previous few days we decided that a birding walk was in order for our final morning, so we met up at 06h00 and John took the group on a walk in the camp while Leon prepared breakfast (and attempted to keep the resident Vervet Monkeys at bay). After the walk we had a final breakfast and packed our bags, and then the group once again split in two with John and Woody heading on the local airport for Woody’s flight to Cape Town and the rest of the group continuing to Johannesburg with Leon. A few new bird species were seen on the way out, such as Dark Chanting Goshawk, Striped Kingfisher, Pale Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Petronia and Bushveld Pipit, with John exiting at Numbi Gate and Leon exiting at Phabeni Gate. Leon’s team then made their way for a final birding session at the Lowveld National Botanical Gardens in Nelspruit. Unfortunately, being the first Sunday after Valetine’s Day, there was a concert on and thus the visit was curtailed, but this may have worked in our favour as, on the way out, we spotted a female African Finfoot and her two tiny chicks on a quite backwater of the Crocodile River, making for a superb final birding moment. Leaving Nelspruit we hit the N4 highway all the way back to Johannesburg to drop Henry and Suzanne off at Outlook Lodge and Paul and Liz off at the airport for their flight back to the UK.

Route: Pretoriuskop to Johannesburg via Nelspruit.
Weather: partly cloudy and hot.
Birds seen: 78.
Bird of the day: African Finfoot.

Below: To see more photos visit the Lawson’s Flickr site: Lawson's Escarpment and Kruger National Park, Feb 2014.

Species Lists

See for the trip report and bird / mammal lists.